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3 days in Kratie Province – spotting the rare Irrawaddy dolphins

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Getaway Category: Adventure & NatureGetaway Tags: Cambodia, Irrawaddy dolphin, Kratie, and Wild East

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  • If you’ve explored Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to exhaustion and don’t have time for a trip to Mondulkiri or Ratanakiri Provinces in the Wild East, but still want to explore Cambodia, Kratie (Pronounced kra-chey) is a great alternative.

    Only 4 hours’ drive from Phnom Penh, the capital of Kratie province provides a gateway into Cambodia’s green belt or the Wild East. If you’re an animal lover, now is your chance to traverse the Mekong and spot the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. This is still a largely unexplored part of Cambodia although some backpackers pass through this languid city before exploring the rest of the north east, Laos or Vietnam. Kratie was well preserved during the civil war from the Khmer Rouge reign of terror with much of the older Khmer and French houses still remaining intact and giving it a quaint colonial feel.


    Day 1 in Kratie Province, Cambodia – Friday

    8:40am: Arrive in Phnom Penh and take a bus to Kratie

    Fly directly to Phnom Penh on a quick 2 hour flight in the early morning to make the most of the day. After touching down in Phnom Penh you can take a bus, shared taxi or private taxi all the way to Kratie. For any ride, it’s best to book with a reputable service before landing, otherwise you might end up changing 4 times and riding like a sardine in a can for the 5-7 hour trip. The bus will be your longest option but most comfy option, at $10 and around 6-7 hours. Preference is to catch a Sorya bus from the Sorya bus station near the Central Market off Charles de Gaule Boulevard. The Sorya Buses depart at 7:15am and 9:45am every day and are mostly equipped with aircon and possibly wifi.

    Shared taxis, also with Sorya, usually do change at least once, possibly in Kampong Cham. So when everyone alights, you’ll know it’s not for a bathroom break. But don’t worry, the driver will let you know where to go next, even if only using sign language. Sorya shared taxis also depart  from the Sorya bus station near the Central Market at around 7:30am or 1pm and charge around US$10-12. Book through your hotel for peace of mind or go through Camboticket or Bookmebus.

    The best, most expensive and fastest way to Kratie is with a private taxi. The $70 and 4h ride will leave a dent in your pocket if you’re going budget, but it surely is the best way to travel as not only do you have freedom to stop along the way to take pictures, but you also have space, air-con, a trusted driver and peace of mind. Your hotel will be able to book a reputable driver from you.

    Take in the most spectacular scenery as you pass rice paddy fields with gigantic water buffalo grazing among playing children and methodical farmers.

    2pm: Arrive in Kratie for lunch at Jasmine Boat Café

    Have a meal either at your hotel or possibly at Jasmine Boat Café while you watch the night scene along the Mekong and Koh Trong island. Gather your bearings as you take a stroll along the Mekong to your hotel. Or catch a tuk tuk for about $2-3. Drop your bags off while you accustom yourself to this leisurely city.

    4pm: Visit Roka Kandal

    And take a slow tuk tuk ride or walk (about 2kms) south of Kratie on the road to Chhlong to the tiny yet ancient pagoda of Roka Kandal. Here you will try to communicate with the friendly locals and witness one of the oldest and simplest pagodas in the area. It’s also a great place to watch the sunset.

    7pm: Dinner at Tokae

    Take a seat and watch the tourists mix with the locals at Tokae restaurant on Road 10, about a block away from the riverfront. Now is your chance to try the local favourites such as beef lok lak (diced beef cubes) and fish amok, a sort of fish mousse made with fresh coconut milk, slok ngor (a bitter local herb), and kroeung which is a distinctly Khmer curry paste that has flavours of lemongrass, ginger, and turmeric. Sip an ice cold Angkor beer and get your relaxation on. Bonus, the wifi here is free. A meal will cost you about US$3.

    Day 2 in Kratie Province, Cambodia – Saturday

    9am: Trip to the Kampi to see the Irrawaddy dolphins

    Today is full of adventure and unbelievable sights, so get up early and have a quick breakfast to take it all in. As there are mostly local eateries on the side of the road, if you don’t have a tour guide, we suggest packing snacks, as well as a full lunch (picnic style) that you can eat at Sambok Mountain. It’s best to book a tour guide in advance so that everything is ready and available for you. Another option is to catch a tuk tuk from the market or just outside Jasmine boat Café, or to ask your hotel to call one for you but the bumpy hour-long ride to the 100-Column Pagoda (Wat Sorsor Muoy Roy) is best done by car, trust us on this one.

    Your first stop will be in Kampi, the town where you will get a glimpse of the Irrawaddy dolphins. It is best to go early morning before it gets too crowded with starry eyed tourists, but it is reported that sightings are almost definite at any time of day. These fantastic, yet highly endangered creatures are remarkable yet super shy. The riverbed that you will visit only holds about 15-20 of these rare fresh-water dolphins, with around 70 left in the entire world. They were used as oil during the Khmer Rouge and due to pollution, fishing nets and inbreeding, they have almost completely disappeared. What makes the Irrawaddy dolphins so distinctive is the fact that they are fresh-water animals and have a very uniquely shaped bulbous forehead.

    While you will definitely spot them on your trip, don’t expect them to jump out of the water. You will most likely just hear them surfacing and see their fins because they are very shy and threatened. Either way, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity made better by the river journey on the Mekong. Tickets can be bought at the ticket office as you enter the grounds at $9 pp for 1-2 people or $7 pp with a group of 3 or more. Children under 12 will pay $4. While the sign says 60mins from November to May and 90mins between June and October, we only went out for 45 minutes, which was sufficient.

    There is also a local wooden knick-knack market where you can purchase trinkets of the dolphins to take home. If you’re more adventurous, contact Sorya Kayaking for a more authentic half day kayak tour along the Mekong to see the dolphins. Prices range from $17 to $43 depending on the amount of people you have in your group. Try to group with other travelers for a cheaper tour.

    11am: Visit the 100-Column Pagoda

    Hop in your car and travel along the Mekong to the 100-Column Pagoda or Wat Sorsor Muoy Roy in Sambour. This trip is about a 30-minute ride from Kampi along traditional Khmer stilted houses and plantations of all kinds. There will be some amazing photo opportunities to capture along the way. On arrival, marvel at the Pagoda that comprises 116 columns in total. The tranquil and serene surroundings lie in stark contrast to the tumultuous history of the pagoda being struck by lightning and burnt to a crisp. Later it was rebuilt by the local people and the modern temple you see was inaugurated on 14th January 1998.

    After gazing at the intricate carvings, you’ll saunter to all of the four Buddhist temples including Vihear Lao to the West, Vihear Sar Sar (the main 100 Pillar Pagoda) to the North, Vihear Kork Keut to the East, and Vihear Kort to the South. The crowning moment is visiting the gigantic golden Buddha.

    12:30pm: Visit the Buddhist temple at Sambok Mountain and a picnic

    Have a snack and drink loads of water before heading to the working Buddhist monastery atop Sambok Mountain, where you will be climbing around 300 stairs up to the top Pagoda. This was our favourite place in Kratie province as you experience serenity among the hundreds of life sized statues of monks after seeing the real ones in practice.

    The origin of this 18th-century temple has two stories. The first being king Chakrei Earsaravarman wanting to find gold. His official found gold at the foot of the mountain and it was thus named Kanliang Sambo Meas or “very rich in gold”. The name then changed to Phnom Sambok Meas and finally Phnom Sambok through different iterations of the local dialects.

    The second story involves a magical monk known as Neak Voan, who used to meditate on top of this mountain. Monks would then ascend the mountain to learn his mysterious ways. As you reach the top, you will find the same mystical air as you explore the life-sized statues relaying stories from the Buddha’s life and meditation masters that have passed away. It is also a popular picnic spot for locals, and this is where you can also have your picnic. But remember to keep it hush as monks are meditating. Also, eat cautiously and watch out for the monkeys that roam the area.

    When you reach the main pagoda, you’ll be utterly impressed by the gorgeous golden Buddhas and the colorful stories depicting the Buddha’s life. Take in the panoramic views of Kratie before heading down to the car and back to the city center.

    3pm: Take a walk around the market and dinner

    Take an easy walk through the market while snacking on sticky rice in bamboo. Watch the sun go down behind the Mekong and Koh Trong island, which you will be visiting tomorrow. End up at Le Tonle Guesthouse and restaurant for dinner, which also acts as a tourism and training center providing practical experiences for young Khmer people. All the profits go directly into the training center. Just some food for thought, literally. You’ll find a host of affordable Western and Khmer delights on the menu as well as super refreshing fruit juices and ice cold beer.


    Day 3 in Kratie Province, Cambodia – Sunday

    9am: Cycle around Koh Trong island

    Take a day of cycling around Koh Trong island. This beautiful, picturesque island in the middle of the Mekong answers the question, what was Cambodia like before the ubiquitous Lexus took over the roads? Enjoy being engulfed in the local community from the moment you step onto the boat just under Jasmine Boat Café. The ferry will set you back 1,000 riel pp (about US$0.25) and an additional 500 riel if you already have a bicycle. You can also hire one for $1 on the island itself from the Community Based Tourism Centre as you enter the island.

    The island is only 3kms from end to end with a 9km mostly concrete path. It is a tiny path, so pull over for motorcycles when they pass. Take it easy today, as you slowly make your way around the lush island with a floating Vietnamese village to the southwest, a temple at the southern tip, and a newer temple and ancient stupa near the centre.

    On the northeastern end is the amazing Rajabori Hotel, whose rooms are built using traditional Khmer stilted architecture with no A/C and just natural airflow. You can stop by for a local Khmer or French lunch (the owner is a French expat) and a reasonably priced bottle of wine. Chill out along the enormous and gorgeous lap pool (or $5 to swim in it) and hear the sounds of nature and falling mangos.

    On the west side is Koh Trong Café, an incredibly friendly place to sip coffee or fresh coconut milk. Make your way to the Western banks to watch the most epic of sunsets and try catch the locals bathing their cows in the water, a wondrous and mystical experience of man, animal and nature.

    4pm: Ferry back to hotel and dinner

    The ferry does stop running at 18:30 sharp, so make sure to get back before then or stay for the night on the island at Rajabori or one of the NGO-owned homestays which you can book from CRD Tours.

    Head back and enjoy dinner at Le Bungalow bar and restaurant (also a hotel) just south of Street 5.

    Day 4 in Kratie Province, Cambodia – Monday

    7:30am: Breakfast and ride back to Phnom Penh

    Wake up fairly early and have some breakfast at a restaurant of your choosing. Sorya Café, the same location where you can hire kayaks, could be a good option. It is located between Road 3 and 4 on the riverside.

    Organise a private taxi back to Kratie with your hotel for peace of mind. We recommend taking a private taxi back so that you don’t end up missing your flight in case the bus breaks down. Leave latest 8:30am to arrive in Phnom Penh by 1pm. The planes leave at 3:25pm and 9:30pm to Singapore. So if you wish to stay in Phnom Penh. Check our family friendly guide here or our romantic one if you’re planning to spend some time in the capital city.


    Places to stay in Kratie Province, Cambodia

    Budget

    Le Tonle Guesthouse is definitely our best pick for budget accommodation in Kratie. Not only is the staff so welcoming and friendly, you also have a fantastic restaurant at your doorstep, a tourism center across the road and you’re giving your cash to a good cause as mentioned above.

    Rooms from US$17 per room per night. Check for rates and availability here.

    #724 Street 3, Kratie

    T: (072) 210 505 , (092) 674 990

    letonlettc@gmail.com

    Mid-range

    For your mid-range option, try out River Dolphin Hotel. While it is not on the main strip or directly by the river, it may not be your first pick, but it is great value for money. They offer free tuk tuks into town, spacious balconies and extremely friendly staff.

    Rooms from US$45 per room per night. Check rates and availability here.

    Soramarith Quay (just south of Street 5), Kratie

    T: (023) 215 651

    bungalow.kratie@gmail.com

    Premium

    While there are no real luxury resorts in Kratie, the closest you’ll come is Rajabori Villas on Koh Trong island. After crossing the river for 1,000 riel, their tuk tuk driver will come pick you up and take you along the 3km concrete path, free of charge. The tuk tuk driver is available upon request whenever you need to get in and out of the island. They will also organize any services you need on the mainland. We loved the enormous pool where you can swim laps for exercise every morning.

    The authentic Khmer style wooden rooms do not have A/C, but rather rely on natural airflow, the closest you’ll come to living like a local. The windows do not have nets, so you may want to close them when you go to sleep. It really is a one of a kind experience to be surrounded by the lush jungle, a symphony of fruit trees and solitude away from traffic, both human and otherwise.

    Rooms from US$85 per room per night. Check for rates and availability here.

    Northeastern end of Koh Trong

    T: (012) 770 150

    rajaborivillas@gmail.com

    Getting into Kratie

    You can get a direct flight to Phnom Penh on Jetstar at 1:30 or 19:30, SilkAir at 7:30 or 16:30, and Singapore Airlines at 7:30 or 16:30.

    While there are a few options for buses, share taxis and private taxis, we found the best option is to actually contact your hotel and ask them to make a reservation for you. They will have connections and will be able to figure out the best options for your time and budget. Be sure to find out all the minor details as the services will most probably not wait for you before departing.

    If you’re struggling with your hotel, try Bookmebus.com for your journey to Kratie.

    Getting around Kratie, Cambodia 

    Walking around the main town by foot or bicycle is a good way of getting around. If you’re going further, it’s best to hire a tuk tuk or private driver and tour guide. Cambodia Pride Tours are a great option and offer everything from motorbiking and private speed boat to wilderness adventures and cycling. 

    Other important notes

    Time difference

    Cambodia is GMT+7, which is 1 hour behind Singapore.

    Best months to visit

    Kratie is usually frequented in October-April, as the rainy season starts in May till end of September. In May it does rain, usually at sunset, but otherwise it is largely sunny. Watch out if you’re going to Koh Trong when it rains as the boats will not travel during the showers.

    Shopping

    Kratie is not known for its shopping but more for its experiences. So while there is a market, you will not find anything resembling a department store or shopping center in Kratie. There is a little supermarket near the Mekong Dolphin Hotel called Sunny Mart, with two others at the north and south ends of town. There is a nice air-conditioned convenience store at the Total petrol station on the big roundabout where you’ll most likely bump into school kids eating a snack. Jasmine Boat Café and Le Bungalow both sell some trinkets like scarves, baskets, and jewellery.

    Things to pack

    – Insect repellant

    – Sunscreen

    – First-aid kit

    – Umbrella in case of rainy weather

    – Non-slip footwear if you want to do some hiking

    – A scarf for ladies to cover themselves up with during temple visits

    See our guide to Kampot for more wilderness adventures!

    "southern ridges, Singapore, nature, walk"

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